Tuesday, January 5, 2021

Scipio Africanus

History has few like Scipio Africanus.  That list brings to mind Marlborough in particular and many others earn honorable mention.  Alcibides comes to mind and others who all left their contempories confounded.

The Senate likely owed back wages to those desgraced legions.

These are the tales that make history fun at times.

Why is ancient Roman general Scipio Africanus hailed as a genius for having his army step aside to form paths for Hannibal's elephants at the Battle of Zama, and isn't that the obvious thing to do when elephants are charging at you?


The Romans did not think he was a genius for that. In truth, the Romans had plenty of experience with elephants and knew how to counter them from the Pyrrhic War.

Pyrrhus brought his elephants and his phalanx army to Italy in 280 BC. At first, the Romans were panicked and Pyrrhus defeated the Romans at the Battle of Heraclea. Pyrrhus’ third engagement was a completely different story. At the Battle of Beneventum in 275 BC, the Roman destroyed his phalanx and captured his elephants. The Romans could manage elephants as weapons of war.

Elephants are not stupid and the Romans took advantage. Loud blaring or squealing annoyed them and they did not liked being stabbed. They would attack people forcing them to fight; they often rampaged through “their” side to get away from fighting. Give elephants a path away from all that stress, they will take it:

First, Scipio was a genius at warfare because he learned from what Hannibal did and countered with sound military practice(he was present at three Roman losses in Italy). None of Hannibal’s tricks were going to work on him.

Second, he masterfully scrubbed the Carthaginians out of Spain, with a severely depleted army. Note, he went to Spain because no one wanted the job; it was considered suicide. The fact was, Scipio’s father and uncle had been killed in Spain earlier in the year. Why would this Scipio have better luck?

In truth, his election to the Spanish proconsulship(one should have been a consul before being a proconsul) was illegal since he was 24 years old; the unwritten minimum age to be consul was 40. Scipio did not qualify to be a consul, much less a proconsul. Recall Senate, means “assembly of old men” and the consuls were their leaders. The election was odd then, and odd now. It was a six level promotion. If this young fool wanted to join his kin in death, he was free to do so. It was an incredible surprise when he drove the Carthagenians out of Spain.

Third and most important, Scipio out maneuvered the Roman Senate; his own side. He had been vehemently opposed by Quintus Fabius (five time consul, two times dictator) and many other very powerful men.

When he proposed to fight the Carthaginians on their home soil, the Senate opposed him. The Senate authorized invasion of North Africa but granted him no new troops. He was authorized to recruit for this suicidal venture. I am sure they thought they were being very clever.

To the Senate’s surprise, Scipio recruited disgraced legionaries; many he knew personally from those losses to Hannibal. In Roman society, these men were “damnatio memoriae” (men that had dishonored Roman society and were unworthy to be remembered); these men were shunned.

Romans that served while losing to Hannibal were sent to “permanent exile” in shitty garrison posts to ensure they were not seen in Roman society again.

Scipio knew these men; they were not bad soldiers, they were poorly led.

Scipio raised his legions from these men with a simple argument:

I will defeat Hannibal; as I defeated all the Carthaginians that faced me. Join my legions. Regain your honor and place in Roman society and get rich from plunder.

Disgraced legionaries ran to his banner. The Senate said nothing. How could they? Sanction disgraced legionaries for abandoning garrison duty to face Rome’s deadliest foe, on the enemy’s soil? That would be insane.

He spent over a year training this army in Sicily. I am certain he practiced the anti-elephant tactics during this time. Note, Scipio, without question, was a master trainer of soldiers. He had turned the broken remnants of the Roman armies in Spain into a force that quickly drove the Carthaginians out of Spain. He did it again when he turned these disgraced garrison legionaries, into the best invading army of the time.

So, Scipio raised hardened legions almost overnight. These men had served over a decade in disgrace and did not expect, or want to return; better to die fighting than live, despised by your countrymen and family. The leper-like treatment would stop with victory or death.

Those legions massacred the Carthaginians, by ambush (take that Hannibal), at the “Battle of Utica.” Scipio’s army of losers killed over 300 Carthaginians for every Roman loss. Battle of Utica (203 BC) - Wikipedia

Scipio massacred the Carthaginians again at the Battle of the Great Plains; again with small losses. The Roman army of loser legionaries, awaited Hannibal’s return after annihilating two Carthaginian armies, with minimal losses, on Carthaginian soil. Battle of the Great Plains - Wikipedia

The Carthaginians recalled Hannibal and his army with reluctance; for some odd reason, Hannibal was as disliked in Carthage as much as Scipio was disliked in Rome.

Lastly, he was a masterful diplomat. Scipio stripped Carthage of its Numidian allies using artful diplomacy. Scipio’s North African cavalry was stronger than Hannibal’s. While Scipio had killed the cream of Numidian cavalry forces at Utica, he still had to convince these very old enemies of Rome to switch sides. He did this by arranging the overthrow of the pro-Carthaginian king. He thus turned a Carthaginians strength against them.

Scipio defeated Hannibal in spite of the Roman Senate. He used the legionaries that lost to Hannibal, to defeat Hannibal, he successfully turned Carthage strongest ally against her and…he outwitted the Senate. Outwit your side to defeat the enemy. Clever man.

Hannibal was general in about 25 battles and lost one, during that war. Scipio was general in about seven battles and lost none. Hannibal was a revolutionary tactician. Scipio was perfect tactically and strategically. Simply put, he made no errors of note.

When Scipio paraded, in triumph, through the streets of Rome, with his victorious legions of men labelled cowards by the Senate, it was the unhappiest triumph celebrated by the Senate. The most powerful men of the Republic fumed in quiet fury. The wanted victory but…not with this boy and not with these legionaries.

The senators never forgave him for leading Rome to victory while outwitting them. They hounded Scipio for the rest of his life.

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